Tag Archives: french literature

‘L’Albatros’ by Charles Baudelaire

Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.

English translation, by William Aggeler 

Often, to amuse themselves, the men of a crew
Catch albatrosses, those vast sea birds
That indolently follow a ship
As it glides over the deep, briny sea.

Scarcely have they placed them on the deck
Than these kings of the sky, clumsy, ashamed,
Pathetically let their great white wings
Drag beside them like oars.

That winged voyager, how weak and gauche he is,
So beautiful before, now comic and ugly!
One man worries his beak with a stubby clay pipe;
Another limps, mimics the cripple who once flew!

The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.

Well, I was all ready to translate this, but when I googled the poem I found tons of different translations of it. I couldn’t help reading through them, and thought that this one was the best. I knew that I couldn’t do my own translation after reading it, because I would have wanted to plagiarise it too much!

I love this poem. I read it first at school; Baudelaire was among the first French poets I read. It is from his collection Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) which was first published in 1857.

L’albatros uses a very similar image to yestedray’s poem by Rilke. This beautiful bird, the albatross, represents the poet; Baudelaire makes this quite clear in the final stanza. I love this image of these birds that are at once so graceful in flight — “kings of the sky” — and also so “clumsy” and “ashamed”, dragging their awkward wings when they are captured and forced to walk on deck.

For me, this is a very touching image. The poet is “prince of cloud and sky” when he is in his element — when he is writing. But, in other situations (perhaps social or other) he is “gauche”, “comic and ugly”, and is “the butt of hoots and jeers”. It seems to be the poet’s genius or brilliance that, like the albatross’s oar-like wings, “prevent him for walking.” What a beautiful final line.

(This reminds me of what Keats once wrote in a letter about a poet being the “most unpoetical of any thing in existence”, because he is always inhabiting other body, such as the sun, the moon etc. The “chameleon poet”, to use Keats’ phrase, is poetical only when he is writing — when he inhabiting something poetic. In other situations, he might be like the albatross, stumbling over his beautiful wings.)

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Swan’ by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Robert Bly)

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

I am so sad that my German is non-existent, apart from the odd greeting or pleasantry. I would so love to be able to read and understand this poem in its original language, but for now Bly’s superb translation will have to do.

From what I can tell, this translation is brilliant. It reads very seamlessly, and I love the attention to the sounds as well as to the accuracy of meaning — particularly in the first line, where I love the assonance of “This clumsy living that moves lumbering”. Translating a poem is not an easy task; a poem is such a complex, loaded thing. It is not like holding up a mirror, but rather creating a new poem that captures the essence of the original, losing neither meaning, implied meaning, tone nor beauty. It seems an almost impossible task.

Rilke’s poem describes the clumsiness of swans as they walk, and then compares it to when the swan “lets himself down/ into the water”, and is suddenly transformed into the embodiment of grace. Although on land swans lumber “as if in ropes” and are terribly “awkward”, on the water, a swan is one of the most graceful sights on this earth.

Rilke takes this image and uses it to suggest that Man is like the clumsy swan in life — stumbling along as if in the dark — and that in death (“which is letting go/ of the ground we stand on and cling to every day” ) Man might be like the swan on water. On water, the swan is “pleased to be carried”, and “more like a king, further and further on”. I think this is a very beautiful, inspiring and comforting image.

The Swan reminds me of Baudelaire’s poem, ‘L’albatros’ (‘The Albatross’), which uses a very similar image to evoke an idea of the nature of the artist. More on that tomorrow…

P.S. If any of you speak German, please let me know what you think of Bly’s translation. Is there anything that you would have done differently?

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Chanson d’automne’ (‘Autumn Song’) by Paul Verlaine

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

 

Here is my translation of this autumnal poem by Verlaine:

The long sobs
Of violins
Of autumn
Wound my heart
With a monotonous
Languor.

All suffocating
And pale, when
The hour chimes,
I remember
The old days
And I weep.

And I go off
In the cold wind
Which carries me
Hither, thither,
As a
Dead leaf.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Il faut, voyez vous, nous pardonner les choses’ by Paul Verlaine

0Il faut, voyez-vous, nous pardonner les choses :
De cette façon nous serons bien heureuses
Et si notre vie a des instants moroses,
Du moins nous serons, n’est-ce pas, deux pleureuses.

O que nous mêlions, âmes soeurs que nous sommes,
A nos voeux confus la douceur puérile
De cheminer loin des femmes et des hommes,
Dans le frais oubli de ce qui nous exile !

Soyons deux enfants, soyons deux jeunes filles
Eprises de rien et de tout étonnées
Qui s’en vont pâlir sous les chastes charmilles
Sans même savoir qu’elles sont pardonnées.

My Translation

You see, we must be forgiven things:
That way, we will find happiness,
And if our life has moments of sadness,
At least we shall weep together.

Oh, if only our sister-souls could blend
Our confused desires with childish tenderness,
And wander on, far from men and women,
In the cool forgetfulness of that which has exiled us.

Let us be children, let us be two little girls,
Who are enamoured by nothing and amazed by all,
Who grow pale in their chaste bowers,
Without even knowing they have been forgiven.

I have been very taken with Verlaine’s poetry since my late teens. I think it is the melancholy of it, a certain lightness and delicate quality to this poet’s voice that  really attracts and continues to fascinate me.

The first line of this poem (in French) is so beautiful. I love the ruffling sound of the repetition of the ‘f’ in “faut” and the ‘v’s in “voyez-vous”. I think that Verlaine was extremely masterful in the way he used alliteration and sibilance in this poem, particularly in the first stanza.

This poem is often described as Verlaine’s request for forgiveness from his wife, Mathilde. He had good reason to beg her forgiveness, because it was no secret that he was in love and having an affair with fellow poet, Arthur Rimbaud. However, for me personally, this poem seems rather to describe his love for Rimbaud, and his wish that society were different and that he could fulfil his love freely. For me, in this poem Verlaine is wishing that he could be forgiven (yes, by his wife, and also by the rest of society). He wishes that he could be forgiven for loving the wrong person because then he could find happiness. Happiness is being with one’s ‘sister-soul’ or ‘soul-mate’, because even during the sad times, at least one is not alone.

The second stanza particularly makes me think of Verlaine’s relationship with Rimbaud because he talks about ‘confused desires’, wishing that they could be as innocent as children. It was only natural that Verlaine’s feelings for Rimbaud were “confused”, since he was married, and also because he was living at a time when homosexuality was illegal and considered a moral evil. He expresses a desire to leave behind ‘men and women’ (the prison of gender) and to live free from that which has exiled him.

In the final stanza, I find it a very touching sentiment as Verlaine expresses his longing for the innocence of childhood. This image of the little girls in their bower, not even knowing that they have been forgiven, is so beautiful. This was a difficult poem to translate but the act of translating it made me realise certain aspects that  I had not clearly registered before.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh